A Problem of Mixed Messages

By Dewi Fortuna Anwar

In the lead up to the release of the 'Australia in the Asian Century' white paper, Dewi Fortuna Anwar writes that Australia should be doing more to foster relations with its near northern neighbour. Indonesia isn’t worried about being ‘neglected’ by Australia – because half the world is knocking on its door.

Recent ‘flashpoints’ with asylum seekers, cattle trade, drug arrests and terrorism can tend to obscure the fact that Australia has some of the world’s best intellectual expertise on Indonesia.

An excerpt of this essay was published in The Australian on Thursday 30 August.

Indonesia is edging back into Australia’s foreign policy debate. The near-northern neighbour may not carry the hopes and fears about transformational trade and strategic weight that China and India do, however the growing relevance of Indonesia to Australia’s interests is not well understood.

After a period of complacency that relations between Australia and Indonesia have never been better – President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s conciliatory style smoothing bilateral frictions over drug arrests, terrorism, asylum seekers, and cattle trade – there now seems to be a sense Indonesia has more to offer Australia, and that Australia is not making the most of the opportunity.

Partly this results from Australia’s opposition searching for ways to differentiate itself from the government in foreign policy. Partly it stems from a realisation by both Australian Labour and the Coalition that Indonesia must play a role in any solutions to the wave of asylum seekers reaching Australia’s outlying territories, most of them coming by boat from Indonesia.

And increasingly, it derives from the growing sense among strategic thinkers, not just in Australia, that in the search for “counterweights” to the growing power of China, Indonesia cannot be ignored. With its huge population and fast expanding economy straddling strategic choke points between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia is not only projected to become one of the major world economies in a few decades, it is also regarded as a global swing state that will have increasing influence in international affairs. Many other large and small countries are already courting Jakarta with trade and strategic interests in mind. President Yudhoyono and his ministers receive a queue of foreign leaders, and make frequent visits abroad.

At government level, Australia is considered to be a very close partner, and in fact the two countries have signed a comprehensive partnership agreement. They cooperate very well in regional and international forums, and on many issues Canberra and Jakarta count on each other for support and coordinate diplomacy to back each other up.

But it is fair to say that the relationship − in terms of the attention paid to it − is still quite asymmetrical. Australians, particularly the media, tend to pay more attention to happenings in Indonesia, especially negative ones, than the other way around. Except when there is high bilateral tension – over East Timor, Papua, or (in previous times) perceived media insults to the Indonesian leadership − it
is hard to think of a time when relations with Australia have become a contested issue or even a topic of discussion among Indonesian chattering elites. On any given day it is quite rare for Australia to figure prominently in the Indonesian media. Many countries figure in Indonesia’s international relations and Australia is just one of many.

At the same time there is still some wariness about Australia, a sense that dormant issues can quickly flare up. Many people in Indonesia are still suspicious of Australians in general − not so much the Canberra government, but elements of the Australian public that make critical comments, especially those questioning Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

This is a leftover of the East Timor issue. There is still a strong belief in some Indonesian circles that the separation of East Timor from Indonesia resulted partly from Australian pressures. To add to this, despite the 2006 Lombok Treaty between President Yudhoyono and then Prime Minister John Howard, there are continuing concerns about Papua. We know there are people in Australia who support the Free Papua Movement. When something negative happens in Papua it becomes an issue in Australia.

There is a sense in Jakarta that too much is expected of it around the ongoing issue of asylum seekers. From the Australian perspective, it always seems Indonesia is not doing enough. From the Jakarta perspective, Indonesia is a very open maritime country, with naturally porous borders. It also has a relaxed visa system in order to promote tourism. It is, therefore, quite easy for people from West Asia and other places to enter as tourists or even to enter Indonesia illegally then join the refugee underground.

The capacity of Indonesian authorities to monitor all the many small ports and simple fishing boats, and pick out those engaged in refugee smuggling, is still limited. The capacity of Indonesian agencies to tackle transnational threats to security such as people smuggling and the plunder of fishery resources is something that needs to be built up and will take time to become effective. Corruption among officials has also made law enforcement more difficult.

Indonesia and Australia look at the region and the world from different historical and cultural perspectives, and this sometimes leads to our leaders speaking at cross purposes. This was made quite clear during the president’s recent visit to Darwin. While Prime Minister Julia Gillard focussed on security issues, the strategic environment, the asylum seeker problem, President Yudhoyono emphasised the opportunity for Australia to expand economic ties, promoting Indonesia as a land of market opportunities for trade and investment. For Indonesia, sustaining its economic growth in the midst of a global downturn and increasing competition is a priority, to ensure both its development momentum and political stability. After all, the majority of Indonesia’s 240 million-plus population are young people needing gainful employment.

There is less preoccupation in Indonesia than in Australia about the possibility of a new Cold War between the United States and China, or in upholding its own interests in the face of a rising China and India. There is also no rush to draw the United States in closer. Indeed, Indonesia believes it needs
to engage China, just as it also engages the United States, on its own terms.

Thus the immediate reaction from the Indonesian government, through Foreign Minister Marty Natelegawa, to last November’s announcement of the posting of US marines to Darwin was one of great caution: to express the hope that such a troop presence would not lead to increased tension or add to misunderstandings. Indonesia continues to stay true to its “free and active” foreign policy in which the stress on not being allied to any particular military power remains a key feature of its identity.

Within ASEAN Indonesia espouses the concept of a “dynamic equilibrium” for managing relations with the major powers.

There is also back chatter among some Indonesian politicians, non-government organisations and students who see the Darwin positioning of the US marines not so much as a counterweight to Chinese influence, but rather aimed at enhancing American leverage over Indonesia itself − even that the real “target” is Papua. This reflects Indonesia’s prickly sense of insecurity about its territorial integrity and the continuing touchy problem of Papuan unrest, as well as its historical memories of American and Australian involvement in the Dutch attempt to separate Papua from the rest of the former Netherlands East Indies.

The feeling of distrust is still there, quite often missed in Washington and maybe in Canberra where there can be a tendency to look at the contemporary big picture and retain only very short historical memories. The big picture of China and the regional balance of power needs to be filled in with the detail of the other countries and their many different stories.

The central government in Indonesia is paying very serious attention to Papua. It is trying to accelerate its development, and with a rising level of violence everyone realises we cannot allow it to be business as usual in the handling of the region’s politics. So it is something that Jakarta takes very seriously, and while trying to address problems internally, it is always on the lookout for any signs that its partners might not be totally committed to Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

As for the debate in Australia about “neglect” of Indonesia, it would be hard to find many Indonesians worried about being neglected. This is more a factor in the Canberra perspective, about calibrating relations with the various foreign partners.

The decline of Indonesian language study in Australian schools and universities has been raised during the visits of Indonesian leaders, along with the unequal people-to- people exchange. With more Indonesians studying in Australia than vice-versa, over time there will develop greater first-hand knowledge of Australia among younger educated Indonesians than is the case with knowledge about Indonesia among Australia’s elite.

Australia should have some comparative advantage in capturing Indonesia’s potentials. Historically, it has put a lot of time and energy into developing the world’s best corps of deep intellectual expertise about Indonesia. It should be able to leverage that expertise, not just for strategic security considerations but its own economic benefits. The drop in interest in Indonesia, just at a time when Indonesia is rising up, is mystifying.

This asymmetry in knowledge is not a good trend. Australia is not doing itself any favours by neglecting its knowledge bank on Indonesian culture and language, and its economic and social dynamics. As ASEAN becomes more integrated, with Indonesia a key component – Jakarta will pull its weight more and more, not just in the regional arena, but internationally.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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